People are weird about deer. Maybe it’s the speckled coat or twitching tail; perhaps it’s the enormous, trusting, glassy eyes. Most likely, it’s that Walt Disney film that’s been traumatising children since 1943. Penny Hanan’s family has been in the deer business over 30 years and she’s heard it all. “We’ve had a lot of people say ‘Urgh! How can you eat Bambi?’” she recalls. “But they’ve got a leather handbag, and they’ve got their leather shoes on and they’ll go and buy a steak.”
It’s a response that strengthens Hanan’s resolve to change people’s minds about deer. Championing a nose-to-tail philosophy aiming to use as much of the animal as possible, her business, 1803, turns byproducts of a commercial venison operation into hand-crafted knives, handbags, pillows, tableware and hides, designed and produced entirely by domestic artisans.
Crafting a product without going overseas is much harder than you’d think. Ancient trades like tanning, bladesmithing and leather crafts have all but disappeared. Hanan and her brother, Tim Hansen, however, were adamant they use only local expertise for 1803. “I don’t want to sound like a wanker,” hedges Hanan. “We get calls from Pakistan and India all the time. But we’re just not going to do it, because there’s a bigger goal here.”
Hanan’s family began running deer in Orange in the early eighties, when her father, the local vet, thought they’d help cut down on weeding. A canny breeder with an interest in bloodlines, Hansen senior grew his herd from a hobby to the largest in the land. Hansen, who’d been working as an international meat trader in Melbourne, returned to Orange to figure out a way to turn the herd into a business. “The herd kept growing, but we didn’t really have an efficient process to make money out of it,” says Hansen. “It was a hobby that had become a huge black hole, and we needed to make money.”
For decades, the venison market was dominated by the New Zealanders. But, over the last decade, Mandagery Creek Venison has been able to tip the balance toward Australia. Slaughtering his meat under halal guidelines allowed Hansen senior to break into the previously untapped Middle Eastern and South-East Asian markets.
By any measure, the family business was going great guns. But something was up: Mandagery was sending hides and horns, the valuable byproducts of venison, overseas. “We were exporting the skins to Germany to be processed into leather,” says Hanan. “They were predominantly being made into lederhosen, which is weird.”
Hanan, a veteran of the financial services industry, thought it was absurd not to capitalise on such an essential part of the deer. “You’ve got an animal, you’re going to eat it,” she says. “Let’s make sure there’s no waste, and let’s make sure we’re making every part of that animal count in some small way.”
So, over a couple of bottles of wine, 1803 was born. The idea is pretty simple: find local craftspeople whose work was good and who valued sustainability. First, someone who could turn the raw hides into leather. “Tanning in Australia has collapsed in the last 20 years, which is really sad because it’s such a traditional, necessary skill,” explains Hanan. “To manage the chemicals in the tanning process, it’s very expensive. People aren’t prepared to do that.”
Through the meat industry, 1803 found Tony Scott, a traditional tanner in Port Elliot, South Australia. The son of a leather chemist, Scott has been stretching and tacking the hides by hand, soaking and dying them in wooden vats since he was 17.
The leather he produces is among the softest going - but it’s a little different to what consumers are used to. “Because of the flighty nature of the deer, they run into trees. They bite each other,” explains Hanan. “Their skins are always marked - that’s just the nature of the animal. But it’s very hard to get people to buy into.”
Once tanned, the hides are shipped to Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, where Jarren Temono works the leather into handbags and pillows. Temono, too, is a genuinely artisanal craftsman: he not only designs the products, but cuts and sews them all himself. Although he’s worked primarily with leather for his own label, te, Temono still found deer a challenge. “Deer is the softest, softest leather. It’s so difficult. It has been a bit nightmarish,” he admits. “But I am learning little tricks and the end result is such a beautiful product.”
While deer hides are relatively plentiful, antler is another thing altogether. The only real source of antler is from the adolescent stags, which grow a single ‘spiker’ antler in the first year. 1803 harvests these spikers, and sends them to Tasmanian bladesmith, Tom Hounslow.
Hounslow, whose father is also a bladesmith, made his first knife from a nail when he was eight. These days, he hammers blades from recycled carbon steel and stainless steel, sharpens them with a stone, polishes the antlers and fixes it together with brass nails. He believes that antlers are made to be a knife. “Antler’s a great material to work with. It just wants to be handled, really,” says Hounslow. “There’s a fair bit of work in it. You need to find the right piece, cut it up to size, polish it up and get the knife to fit in there - it can be a bit tricky sometimes.”
Of course, all this talent and travel can only come at a price; bags start at $440, and knives at $220. “The only bastard out of this whole thing is the price-point,” Hanan frankly admits. “I’m not making money. But that’s the only way we can do it.”
With the amount of effort it takes to raise an animal and to employ local craftspeople to create a product here in Australia, Hanan believes there needs to be a wider conversation about the value of things. “Why do we think we can have beautiful, aged, premium Australian meat and question the price of that when agriculture is on its knees?” she asks. “We’re one of the world’s most efficient agriculture-producing nations. Yet there is still this price pressure to make things cheaper.”
In Hanan’s mind, though, the difference between a handbag from an international brand and one of her own is transparency. “You can come to the farm, see how the animals are raised, and have a lovely Guinness and roast as well,” she offers. “That’s the rarity. It’s not the rarity of the label. It’s being able to understand that an animal has been nurtured and cared for, raised to be eaten and used, and you can control that and have a great level of integrity.”